Paper explores tiny homes as affordable housing option

Image shows two tiny houses in Portland, USA.

Tiny houses are one way to help address Australia’s affordable housing shortage and alleviate homelessness, but their potential has been hindered by a lack of a coherent regulatory and policy framework and variable community support, a new paper says.

The paper by Liz de Chastel, a Senior Policy Officer with the Australian Local Government Association, gives an overview of local government, affordable housing, and overseas experiences.

“Tiny houses have had success internationally and allow affordable living in a small space,” the paper published in Australian Planner, said.

“They can provide a home for some of the most vulnerable people in the community; for example, single older women trapped in the rental cycle and young people locked out of home ownership.

“However, tiny houses, especially tiny houses on wheels, can come with challenges for Councils and owners such as financing, definitions, safety, planning and building code compliance and negative community perception.”

The paper said Australia’s 537 councils engage closely with their communities to address local issues, depending on a council’s priorities, nature of housing challenges in a locality, resources, and capability.

However, as State/Territory Governments administer planning legislation, often councils are constrained by these requirements in their responses to tiny houses, including their definition.

This affects how local councils address housing affordability more broadly. A 2018 study of more than 200 councils found many were aware housing affordability was a problem in their locality, but felt unable to respond in a meaningful way.

“Many Councils also felt that Australia’s housing affordability problem is beyond the capacity of local governments to resolve,” the paper continued.

“These results suggest that State/Territory and Federal Governments need to further support Councils.

“There is also a case that regulation and policy for tiny houses and other innovative housing models should not stop at State/Territory borders with the danger of having a patchwork of regulation and policy responses across the nation.”

Australia lacks a national affordable housing strategy, and there has not been national dialogue between the three levels of government on housing or planning.

Current national housing and homelessness agreements are between the Commonwealth and individual states/territories, without direct engagement of Local Government.

“For these reasons, ALGA has called for a reinstatement of a national governance model which includes Local Government,” the paper said.

“This governance model would develop and discuss national strategies for affordable housing and homelessness.”

Despite these challenges many councils have engaged with their communities on affordable housing and tiny homes such as fact sheets on tiny housing approval processes by NSW’s Lake Macquarie City Council and Tweed Shire Council, and an Innovating Housing Expo hosted by the City of Kalamanda (WA).

One community-led tiny houses initiative, Transition Village Wallan, a semi-rural town on Melbourne’s northern fringe, started in 2017 and was inspired by projects in the USA.

The Wallan project aims to build 10 off-grid properties for people experiencing or who are at risk of homelessness, and has been working with Mitchell Shire Council to secure land.

“Whilst many [local communities] are actively engaging with facilitating tiny houses, councils can benefit from support from other levels of government to introduce regulations and policies for new forms of affordable housing,” the paper said.

“Some other suggestions include demonstration projects and dissemination of information for the public.

“In the meantime, there is a demonstrated interest in Tiny Homes as a form of housing that many people are happy to call home.”

Image: Tiny homes in Portland, USA. Credit: Dan David Cook/Wikipedia.